Of Flickering Silver (Part 7)

This feature was originally published in Issue 22, April 2012. Words by Elton Townend Jones.

Join me on my continuing mission, as I trawl through the contents of my DVD cupboard and watch every movie I own – not ‘the best of’, not ‘the all-time greats’, just the movies I own – in chronological order…

This time, we return to the canon of that cinematic great, Alfred Hitchcock, and watch two black and white movies from his British period. It’s still 1937, where so far we have enjoyed two colossal pictures: Disney’s Snow White and Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World. Both of these broke new and magical cinematic ground – can Mr Hitchcock match such magic? I think so.

YOUNG AND INNOCENT

A man with twitchy eyes throttling his wife on an isolated beach; an innocent man caught in a dangerous web of intrigue and bureaucracy; a practical and clear-minded modern woman falling in love with a fugitive from the law; a car crashing through the weakened floors of an ancient mine; a secret hidden at the beating heart of the Grand Hotel…

Unless you’re already very much into Hitchcock, you’ve probably never heard of Young and Innocent. I must admit I hadn’t until very late in the day. I knew I liked Hitchcock (based mostly on my enjoyment of his later Hollywood period), but one Christmas about five years ago I found myself spending an idle afternoon watching some of his early British pictures on BBC2 (see The Lady Vanishes below). It was cosy; I had a nice time. Shortly afterwards I was walking through that purveyor of fine and fancy goods known best as 99p Stores, where I came upon a DVD of three black and white un-chaptered, un-remastered movies: The Woman in Green (not a Hitchcock in fact, but one of Basil Rathbone’s outings as Sherlock Holmes), The Man Who Knew Too Much (reviewed some issues ago) and the hitherto unheard of Young and Innocent. Bargain!

Of all Hitchcock’s British movies, I think this 33p spend might just be my favourite. It is immediately engaging and moves with a faster pace than some might expect from a piece of this period. The strong cast is headed by Nova Pilbeam as plucky and practical Hitchcock blonde Erica Burgoyne (a strong female character the likes of which would soon be lost to British cinema) and Derrick De Marney as the stolid and inventive Robert Tisdall (the latest in Hitch’s line of ‘wrong men’). Also featured are Edward Rigby as Old Will and the lovely pairing of Mary Clare and Basil Radford as Erica’s charming aunt and uncle.

Although this is a tale of one man’s attempt to clear himself of a murder he did not commit by uncovering the real culprit, and given that it does carry moments of great tension and suspense, this is not Psycho or Vertigo. Young and Innocent is not so much an action suspense thriller as a light-hearted suspenseful romp; it is a sparkling and witty film whose adventure is explicated with a kind of manic, youthful exuberance – and many of its sequences are played for comic effect. There is comedy throughout, some of it black (the unexpected lampooning of the police as ‘pigs’), some of it ironic (the use of children as the adult perspective on childish adults) and some of it plain gormless (slapstick coppers and comic brawling). There are amusing moments at the children’s party when Tisdall assumes the nom de plume of Beechtree Manningcroft during a game of blind man’s bluff and at the roadside café, Tom’s Hat, where a motley collection of drivers and vagrants find themselves knocking seven shades of shinola out of each without the slightest provocation. Adding to the proceedings are lovely full-on comic performances from myopic legal representative Mr Briggs, the disgruntled pig farming yokel, and the petrol pump attendant with his face stuffed full of lunch.

All of this is monitored of course by the watchful eye of one of the twentieth century’s greatest directors, even if it at first seems Hitchcock’s signature isn’t written all over it. Sure, there are many visual alarms that scream his name, not least of which is the cry of the girl who finds the corpse on the beach being replaced by that of a shrieking seagull (a train whistle is used to similar effect in The 39 Steps). Details are also effectively communicated by newspaper headlines; a convention we might scoff at now, but one perfectly utilised and dramatically filmed (no simple rostrum work for Hitch).

It does seem, however, that with this picture Hitchcock is less concerned with framing and presentation than he is with what it is we are actually seeing. There is much here that seems new and expensive, which must surely have taxed Hitchcock and his team more physically than aesthetically. The sets are big and grand, especially the mine and the multi-levelled barn hideout. It looks like there is money here, and time. There is also a surprising and thrilling amount of model work. There are model forests, model rail depot’s and model car chases with model trains across model railway lines – and they all look really good. Ironically, the movie’s best action sequence is devoid of models but still manages to have a car fall through the ground inside a collapsing mine shaft! It’s a shocking and astounding moment – a proper cliff-hanger – incredibly and brilliantly executed; and what’s more, it might just be the best action moment so far on this film odyssey.

But by far the best artistic moment is the one I can’t talk about unless I spoil things for you. So I’ll say this much: there’s a wonderful crane shot that swoops across the lobby of the Grand Hotel and into its dance hall, gliding slowly and effortlessly across the dancing masses towards the resident minstrel jazz band. And as it sweeps in it comes closer and closer and closer to the most thrilling and rewarding bit of detail you’re ever likely to see in any movie. I had the good pleasure of seeing this on the big screen a few years ago and enjoyed the gasps of my fellow viewers immensely.

I should also take a moment to reflect on the environmental backdrop of this picture. Young and Innocent, appropriately perhaps, speaks of an older England that has long gone (probably eternally erased by the war in Europe that soon followed); all carts, and farmers, idyllic views, village scenes, almost Ruritanian market towns and the ever-present pleasant twitter of birdsong. I’m romanticising, but this is the only England in which Young and Innocent could really take place, and as we travel forward, it will gradually disappear.

[5/5]

So we leave 1937, but stay with Hitchcock for a brief stopover in 1938, where…

THE LADY VANISHES

Something definitely queer is going on. A rich playgirl suffering concussion on an icy railway platform; a mysterious brain surgeon attending an entirely bandaged patient on a trans-European steam train; an Italian conjuror fighting his enemies with magical paraphernalia; a pair of English boors risking the fate of entire nations for a game of cricket; and a kindly governess who not only seems to vanish from the face of the earth, but also from the memories of all who saw her. Except one that is…

In many ways, The Lady Vanishes has a central relationship that resembles that of The 39 Steps. This time, the leads are Margaret Lockwood (as confident and sophisticated Iris Henderson) and the twinkly Michael Redgrave (as the somewhat bohemian and insouciant Gilbert Redman), both of whom turn in charmingly precise performances. As with Nova Pilbeam in Young and Innocent, the female lead gets top-billing, but even if Iris Henderson is not quite as plucky as Erica Burgoyne, she gets the edge on her by being the ‘man alone’ in this picture. Yes, this time the ‘wrong man’ is a woman. Travelling across Europe on a train full of strange characters, Iris is plunged into a crazy world that contradicts all her recent empirical experiences, so the story is told from her perspective while Gilbert adopts the role of the sceptical Hitchcock blonde. This is a nice touch and suggests that Hitchcock is already aware of the conventions he is building and is more than happy to play with them. The pairing still allowing for the customary battle of wills and wits, which is most delightfully played out when Gilbert moves into Iris’s hotel room as revenge for her having had him evicted for noisiness. It is worth noting that there are several strong women in this film: Iris and her friends initially comprise a trio of sexy skiers, happy to show off their emancipation, their underwear and their shapely legs; there are also two female villains, a wronged mistress and, of course, the Lady who does the vanishing. As ever in these 1930s movies, they all look glamorous and elegant, even the jolly hotel maid, whose role is entirely comedic.

Providing laughs and a kind of chorus commentary is the great, colonial double-act of Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (the brilliant Basil Radford). Their initial talk of ‘England on the brink’ seems to reference the war clouds then gathering over Europe, but proves merely to be part of their continual obsession with the Test Match being played in their absence. Arrogant and condescending throughout, they prove unpleasant and selfish in all their actions (calling baseball ‘rounders’; dismissing foreigners and their customs; being tight with the sugar) – and yet they amuse by sharing a bed like Morecambe & Wise, and ultimately inspire by showing great spirit and, of course, patriotism when surrounded by hostile gunmen during the gripping climax.

The main villain of the piece is Dr Hartz of Prague played with a worryingly sinister but cultivated charm by Paul Lukas (bearing no small resemblance to John Carradine in his Universal Dracula guise).

The titular Lady is the seemingly twee and tweedy Miss Froy, un-fussily played by Dame May Whitty. She claims to be a governess and waxes lyrical about European traditions, children and music; but this Miss Marple figure has more to her than she is perhaps letting on; vanishing from all recollection as Iris sleeps, her ‘ghost’ leading the passengers of the train towards one of the most exciting shoot-outs in movie history as the dining carriage is uncoupled and stranded in the woods as enemy soldiers converge on all sides…

Again, it’s visually very Hitchcock, but the performances of the actors seem more up front than usual, and technician Hitch taking a back seat. As with Young and Innocent there is great use of models, notably with steam trains, a viaduct and, best of all, a lovely alpine landscape with a snowbound train at a station (complete with moving car). What makes this latter all the more thrilling is the camera shot that pans across it and through a model hotel window into a lobby set alive with actors. Masterly. Also noteworthy for technical merit is my favourite moment, when Iris stops the train by pulling the emergency cord and falls into the camera giving us a documentary-style shot that is rich and shadowy.

I won’t spoil the ending or elucidate the mystery, but I think I’ve said enough to whet the appetites of those sympathetic to this kind of movie. I am certain I prefer Young and Innocent (it is funnier, odder and spends more time in the open rather than on studio sets, which gets a little claustrophobic here) but there’s no doubt that if you’ve never seen The Lady Vanishes, then you really ought to.

[4/5]

Next time it’s 1939 where things are about to go truly epic…

See you then!

ELTON TOWNEND JONES does ‘80s zeitgeist at www.25yearstoolate.blogspot.com

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